erik lundegaard


Touchez pas au Grisbi (1954)


There is something measured and specific about Jacques Becker’s films. Nothing is hurried and nothing essential is left out. You do what you do until you reach the end, even if the end isn’t what you want it to be, as it rarely is. As viewers, we sometimes guess where things are going, but when they wind up there we still feel slightly shocked, certainly saddened. Some of Becker’s protagonists, too, know how things will play out but they never jump ahead. They may assume the worst in their fellow man but they don’t act on that assumption. To do so would be dishonorable.

The honorable man in Becker’s “Touchez pas au Grisbi” (1954) is Max, an aging gangster, played by aging movie star Jean Gabin, who was, at the time of the production, 15 years removed from his heyday. “Grisbi” gave him a second life. He made 50 more movies.

Today Gabin is a legend. In 1999 he was voted “the actor of the century” in a French poll, and one of the few English language books about him (as well as a blog) is entitled “The World’s Coolest Movie Star.” Here, Gabin straddles the line between cool and weary, but his weariness isn’t a result of the world overwhelming him. The opposite. It underwhelms. It’s entirely predictable.

We first see Max at the restaurant of his choice, Madame Bouche’s, a gangster hangout in Montmartre (but classy), where those at his table, including his partner, Riton (Rene Dary), hang onto his every reluctant word. After dinner they pile into a car and head to a strip club (but classy), where Max, with shrugging matter-of-factness, brokers a deal between the owner, “Fats” Pierrot (Paul Frankeur) and Angelo, a rival gangster (Lino Ventura), then discovers Angelo backstage lip-locked with Riton’s girl, Josy (a young Jeanne Moreau). Roger Ebert, in his 2004 review, is excellent on the next scene:

This would come as particularly bad news to Riton, who fancies himself a ladies’ man and thinks Josy belongs to him, but look how elegantly Becker resolves the situation. Instead of telling his pal that he's a cuckold, Max advises Riton to give up Josy. He points out aging playboys steering hookers around the dance floor, calls attention to the bags under Riton's eyes and suggests they go home early. Riton suggests he stay for one more drink. No, says Max, with that flat, calm Gabin delivery; he knows what one more drink will lead to: A bottle of champagne with Angelo, and then having to take the girls out for onion soup, and then having to have sex ... it's easier just to leave now.

Riton doesn’t but Max does, and he’s followed home by a couple of Angelo’s mugs, whom he handles with dispatch, then calls to warn Riton. We don’t know it yet but Max has already figured it all out. All the evidence is there for us, too, buried in the details of the film. That $50 million gold heist from Orly Airport Max was reading about at the beginning? Max and Riton pulled it off. So of course Riton had to brag about it to Josie. And of course Josie spilled the beans to her lover, Angelo, who of course wants the gold.

Max explains all of this—slightly fed-up—to Riton in Max’s safe house. It’s a scene unprecedented in gangster movies and it’s Becker at his measured and specific best. After Max explains to Riton that their $50 million heist was his last job and he doesn’t want Riton to eff it up, the two sit, drink wine, and eat biscuits and pate. They put on pajamas and brush their teeth. They go to bed. But within the quotidian details is the difference between the two. Max knows and accepts what he is. Riton checks out the bags under his eyes and is saddened by what he sees. The next morning he fights it. He goes to see Josie but is captured by Angelo. He’s held hostage for the gold.

Ebert raises the following question:

Does Max love Riton? Max seems to be the current or former lover of almost every woman in the movie, and yet, yes, Riton is who he loves.

Sure, he loves him. But loves loves? I’d give that a Gabin-esque shrug. There’s another great scene where Max, in voice-over, thinks about what a screw-up Riton has been, and whether he should leave him to his fate. It’s the only moment where we get a voice-over in the movie and it’s the only moment where we get this side of Max. That’s why the voice-over. Saying it aloud isn’t Max. But the thoughts are there.

One wonders why Max carries him, though. Is it just the honor of the thing? His need to remain loyal to his friends? Psychologists might call Max an enabler, and maybe there’s something there. He’s assured of his superiority by hanging with screw-ups.

Yet, if anything, Max’s cool results less from a sense of superiority and more from remaining a reluctant participant in the continuing charade. He wants his restaurant, he wants his girls, he wants as little danger as possible. But—in the overused phrase—they keep pulling him back in, and he goes with a shrug. He knows how it’ll play out—not well—but he goes anyway. You want to play this? I’ll play it. Since he has no illusions he sees things clearly and remains a step ahead.

I’m wondering about the end. There’s that scene, after Max learns that Riton has been kidnapped but before the deal has played out, where he visits his mistress, and, post-coital, holds up her hand and looks at the jewels on her wrist. Becker loves his details—his details are clues—and after it’s all over the mistress is no longer an afternoon visit for Max. He’s out with her at Madame Bouche’s. Because of the jewels and what they represent? Max’s payday, the gold, has been lost and we know he doesn’t want to go back in, so is this his compromise? Give up some independence for some money? Or is it all merely temporary until things quiet down and he can once again sketch out a plan that will allow him that final chance to retire on his own terms? Either way, we could all use such a fallback position.

The French during this period were great with aging gangster movies—see “Bob le Flembeur” and “Rififi”—but I’m wondering where the great aging American gangster movies are. Do we have them? Do we count “The Godfather”? Or “The Godfather—part III”? Or are all aspects of American society a young man’s game, including its underworld?

P.S. Not to be too Netflix about this but: If you liked “Grisbi” you have to check out Jacques Becker’s last film, “Le Trou”—literally “The Hole,” and slang for “The Jail”—about a jailbreak among honorable men. It may include the best last line in movie history, and one that suggests, in two words, Becker’s entire oeuvre. It suggests an entire way to live.

—June 18, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard